NSC-68

“The crisis atmosphere of 1949-50 produced most notably NSC-68, a sweeping restatement of U.S. national security policy ad one of the most significant Cold War documents.  In late 1949, Truman ordered a review of military policies in response to loss of the nuclear monopoly.  Long frustrated by the staunch opposition of the president and Defense Secretary Louis Johnson to increased military spending, Acheson used the study, as he later put it, to ‘bludgeon the mass mind of “top government”‘ into spending the money necessary for adequate defenses.  NSC-68 was drafted by [Paul] Nitze, who had replaced Kennan as head of the Policy Planning Staff.  A Wall Street investment banker, as intense in personality as his mentor James Forrestal, Nitze exceeded Acheson in his gloomy worldview.  His study set forth an urgent statement of the national security ideology.  It proclaimed the necessity of defending freedom across the world to save it at home.  Written in the starkest black-and-white terms, it took a worst case view of Soviet capabilities and intentions.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p, 638


Discussion Questions

  • What major developments were fueling the “crisis atmosphere” that Herring attributes to 1949-50?
  • How did NSC-68 represent a new era in the evolution of US attitudes toward containment of the Soviet Union?

NSC-68

Opening content page of secret National Security Council memorandum (NSC-68) from early 1950

Berlin Blockade

“The Berlin Blockade [of 1948] posed a major challenge for the United States and its allies.  They correctly perceived that Stalin did not want war, but they also recognized that the blockade created a volatile situation in which the slightest misstep could provoke conflict.  Certain that the Allied position in West Berlin was militarily indefensible, some U.S. officials pondered the possibility of withdrawal.  Others insisted that the United States could not abandon Berlin without undermining the confidence of Western Europeans –a ‘Munich of 1948,’ warned diplomat Robert Murphy.  Previously more open to negotiations with the Soviets than Washington, [Gen. Lucius] Clay now urged sending an armed convoy through East Germany to West Berlin.  Truman and Marshall chose a less risky course, ‘unprovocative’ but ‘firm’ in Marshall’s words.  Drawing on the Army Air Force experience carrying supplies over the Himalayas to China in World War II and a mini-airlift during a Soviet ‘baby-blockade’ of West Berlin just months before, they turned to air power to maintain the Western position in Berlin and sustain its beleaguered people.  It was the sort of thing Americans do best, a stroke of genius.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 624


Discussion Questions

  • How was the US airlift response to the Berlin Blockade a classic illustration of containment doctrine as it was emerging in the late 1940s?
  • What were some of the most significant consequences of the Berlin Blockade?

 

Long Telegram

“Less than two weeks later [in February 1946], [George] Kennan unleashed on the State Department his famous and influential “Long Telegram,” an eight-thousand-word missive that assessed Soviet policies in the most gloomy and ominous fashion.  The namesake of a distant relative who in the late nineteenth century had documented for enthralled U.S. audiences the horrors of the Siberian exile system, the younger Kennan was one of a handful of men trained after World War I as experts on Bolshevik Russia.  Conservative in his tastes and politics and scholarly in demeanor, he developed a deep admiration for traditional Russian literature and culture and, from service in the Moscow embassy after 1933, an even deeper antipathy for the Soviet state.  Frustrated during the war when the Roosevelt administration ignored his cautionary recommendations, he eagerly responded when Truman’s State Department requested his views.  ‘They had asked for it,’ he later wrote.  ‘Now, by God, they would get it.’  In highly alarmist tones, he delivered over the wires a lecture on Soviet behavior that decisively influenced the origin and nature of the Cold War.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 604


Discussion Questions

  • George Kennan was one of the most influential diplomats in American history and yet never rose above the status of senior staff at the State Department or later (briefly) as an ambassador overseas.  How did Kennan make such an outsized impact on US policymaking?
  • How would you describe the US policy of “containment” that emerged after Kennan’s “Long Telegram” in a series of actions and strategic statements during 1946 and 1947?

 

Yalta

“Roosevelt discussed the issues with Churchill and Stalin for the last time at Yalta in the Crimea in early February 1945.  The very name ‘Yalta’ has served as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of tensions with the Soviet Union.  For some U.S. participants, the conference seemed, in Hopkin’s words, ‘the first great victory for the peace,’ a meeting where allies with divergent interests reached reasonable agreements to end the war and establish a basis for lasting peace.  Less than ten years later, in the tense atmosphere of the early Cold War, Yalta became synonymous with treason, fiercely partisan critics of FDR claiming that a dying president, duped by pro-Communist advisers, conceded Soviet control over Poland and Eastern Europe and sold out Chiang Kai-shek.  A ‘great betrayal,’ it was labeled, ‘appeasement greater than Munich.’  Because a ‘sick man went to Yalta’ and ‘gave away much of the world,’ Senator William Langer fumed, ‘our beloved country is facing ruin and destruction.'” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 584-85


Discussion Questions

  • Herring goes on to write that the Yalta Conference in 1945 “cannot be understood” without appreciating its context.  What was the most essential context for appreciating the challenges posed to FDR at this Big Three gathering?
  • How should we assess the historic significance of the Allies in World War II?  Did they win the war but lose the opportunity for shaping a better peace?

Casablanca

“As U.S. military planners had feared, the invasion of North Africa in November 1942 was followed by agreement at an Anglo-American summit in Casablanca in January 1943 to invade Sicily and then Italy.  Since operations in North Africa and the Pacific were absorbing increasing volumes of supplies, the British now argued that the Allies lacked sufficient resources to mount a successful invasion of France and insisted that they follow up victories in the Mediterranean.  Divided among themselves, U.S. military planners were no match for their British counterparts.  ‘We came, we listened, and we were conquered,’ one officer bitterly complained.  The harsh reality was that as long as the British resisted a cross-Channel attack and the United States lacked the means to do it alone, there was no other way to stay on the offensive.  In any event, logistical limitations likely prevented a successful invasion of France prior to 1944.  As a way of palliating Stalin’s Russia, the ‘ghost in the attic,’ at Casablanca, in Kimball’s apt words, Roosevelt and Churchill proclaimed that they would accept nothing less than the unconditional surrender of the Axis.  The statement also reflected FDR’s determination to avoid repeating the mistakes of World War I, as well as his firm belief that Germany had been ‘Prussianized’ and needed a complete political makeover.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 552-53


Discussion Questions

  • How to do you summarize the three-way dynamics of Allied strategic debates during World War II?  What does Casablanca illustrate about the competing views of the Americans, British, and Soviets?
  • Why was the call for “unconditional surrender” an attempt to avoid the “mistakes” of World War I?

 

Good Neighbor

“The one sentence of FDR’s inaugural address devoted to foreign policy included that memorable if also notably vague line ‘In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor.’ Meant to apply generally, it became identified with the Western Hemisphere and was one of Roosevelt’s most important legacies.  A product of self-interest and expediency along with a strong dose of idealism and more than a smattering of genuine goodwill, the Good Neighbor policy in its initial stage terminated existing military occupations and disavowed the U.S. right of military intervention without relinquishing its preeminent position in the hemisphere and dominant role in Central America and the Caribbean.  In time, it extended beyond policy into the realm of cultural interchange.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 497


Discussion Questions

  • How did Herbert Hoover lay the “foundations” for the Good Neighbor policy and why was that such a departure from previous US involvement in Latin America?
  • What were some of the cultural interchanges of the Good Neighbor policy?

Student-produced map (George Gilbert)

Dawes Plan

“The United States played a central role in resolving the tangle [over WWI debts and reparations].  The administration named Chicago banker Charles G. Dawes and Owen D. Young, a General Electric executive with close ties to the J.P. Morgan banking firm, to head its group of experts, closely monitored their work, and stepped in on occasion to mediate disputes.  It was no easy task.  A settlement had to be hard enough on Germany to satisfy Allied and particularly French concerns while soft enough to be acceptable to Berlin.  The fast-talking and indefatigable Dawes –an ‘astounding human dynamo,’ one colleague called him– also had close connections to France from his wartime service in Paris and helped bring the French along.  Young devised a flexible and ingenious plan, ironically one that would bear Dawes’s name, that became the means not only to solve the intractable reparations problem but also to promote German recovery.  The plan scaled back the reparations figure and started with small payments that increased as the German economy improved.  By requiring recipients to buy German products, it also helped kick-start German recovery.  Germany was provided a loan of $200 million and required to undertake reforms U.S. businessmen considered essential.  Responsibility for payment was assigned to an American, S. Parker Gilbert, who in the process gained substantial influence over German finances.  Hoover exulted in the ‘disinterested statesmanship’ carried out by private American citizens and labeled the Dawes Plan a ‘peace mission without parallel in international history.'” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 459


Discussion Questions

  • The US had rejected the Treaty of Versailles and remained out of the League of Nations.  Yet the Dawes Plan of 1924 was one of only several ways that Americans remained invested in the post-war settlement in Europe and elsewhere.  What were some of the key ways that US policymakers engaged with Europeans during the 1920s?
  • The Dawes Plan helped illustrate rising US power in global trade and international economics.  How did this newfound economic clout affect American priorities in foreign policy?

 

Washington Naval Conference

“[Charles Evans] Hughes handled the [Washington naval] conference with consummate skill.  He prepared with utmost care, mastering the technicalities of complex weapons systems without getting bogged down in detail.  He kept U.S. naval officers on board without letting them take control.  Avoiding Wilson’s mistakes, he made Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge part of the solution, thus preventing him from again becoming the problem.  he developed a full-fledged plan for sizeable reductions in the tonnage of battleships, the ultimate weapon of the era, and kept his proposals secret until the conference opened.  On November 11, 1921, Armistice Day, the delegates attended a moving ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.  The following day, in what journalist William Allen White called ‘the most intensely dramatic moment I have ever witnessed,’ Hughes unveiled his plan in what became known as his ‘bombshell speech’ before a stunned audience at Washington’s Constitution Hall.  Addressing a packed house including prime ministers, admirals, the entire U.S. Congress, and some four hundred journalists from across the world, he insisted that the competition in armaments ‘must stop!’ He proceeded to call for the scrapping of sixty-six ships, including four British super-dreadnoughts authorized but not yet under construction and a Japanese battleship, the Mutsu, built in part with collections from schoolchildren.  ‘Hughes sank in thirty-five minutes more ships than all of the admirals in the world have sunk in a cycle of centuries,’ an admiring journalist wrote.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 453-54


Discussion Questions

  • If Secretary of State Hughes’s performance at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 was so masterly and dramatic, why has this episode become so obscure?
  • How does the story of naval disarmament on the Pacific during the 1920s illustrate what Herring calls the growing pattern of US “involvement without commitment” during the interwar period?

 

Treaty of Versailles

“At the time and since, blame has been variously cast for the outcome of 1919-20 [when the US rejected the Treaty of Versailles].  Lodge and the Republicans have been charged with rabid partisanship and a deep-seated personal animus that fueled a determination to embarrass Wilson.  It can be argued, on the other hand, that they were simply doing the job the political system assigned to the ‘loyal’ opposition and that the Lodge reservations were necessary to protect national sovereignty.  The Democrats have been criticized for standing firmly –and foolishly– with their ailing leader, instead of working with Republicans to gain a modified commitment to the League of Nations.  Wilson himself has been accused of the ‘supreme infanticide,’ slaying his own brainchild through his stubborn refusal to deal with the opposition….The defeat of Wilson’s handiwork leaves haunting if ultimately unanswerable questions.  The Wilson of 1919-20 believed that vital principles were at stake in the struggle with Lodge and that compromise would render the League of Nation all but useless.  Would a more robust and healthy Wilson –the artful politician of his first term– have built more solid support for his proposals or found a middle ground that would have made possible Senate approval of the treaty and U.S. entry into the League of Nations?  Could a modified League with U.S. participation have changed the history of the next two decades?” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 433-34


Discussion Questions

  • Lodge and Wilson were both internationalists.  So why did they destroy the greatest accomplishment of American internationalism to that point in time?
  • Does this American treaty-making and treaty-ratifying system deserve any blame for this tragic outcome?

 

Fourteen Points

“In a series of public statements, most notably in his Fourteen Points address of January 18, 1918, Wilson molded these broad principles into a peace program. Called by the New York Herald “one of the great documents in American history,” the speech responded to Lenin’s revelations of the Allied secret treaties dividing the spoils of war and his calls for an end to imperialism as well as a speech by Lloyd George setting out broad peace terms.  Wilson sought to regain the initiative for the United States and rally Americans and Allied peoples behind his peace program.  He called for ‘open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.’ He reiterated his commitment to arms limitations, freedom of the seas, and reduction of trade barriers.  On colonial issues, to avoid alienating Allies, he sought a middle ground between the old-style imperialism of the secret treaties and Lenin’s call for an end to empire.  He did not use the word self-determination, but he did insist that in dealing with colonial claims the ‘interests’ of colonial peoples should be taken into account, a marked departure from the status quo.  He also set forth broad principles for European territorial settlements –a sharp break from the U.S. tradition of non-involvement in European affairs.  The peoples of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires should be assured ‘an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.’ Belgium must be evacuated, territory formerly belonging to France restored.  A ‘general association of nations’ must be established to preserve the peace.'” (George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 412)


Discussion Questions

  • In this chapter, Herring paints a vivid portrait of Woodrow Wilson.  How would you characterize Wilson’s leadership on foreign policy and global strategy?
  • Do the Fourteen Points represent a general continuation or a fundamental departure from American foreign policy traditions?